Chores: The Apprentice Years (Ages 1-5)


Have you read Helen Oxenbury’s sweet Tom and Pippo series? In Tom and Pippo Make a Mess, toddler Tom repeatedly tries to help his father, but ends up creating disasters.

Little children are natural imitators, and they love to be with their parents, doing the same activities. Toddlers are also beginning to take great satisfaction in “doing it myself.” While the outcome isn’t always perfection, instead of pushing your little ones to the side so you can get the housework done, take advantage of their desire to help by teaching them to work alongside you.

When is a child ready to begin doing simple work? As soon as he or she can walk and understand basic commands! Sometimes we are tempted to put off all our work until the little ones are napping, but for at least part of your work, try to include your toddlers. Even though the “help” will likely make the job take longer, or occasionally, as in Tom’s case, mean that you will have to do the job over later after cleaning up a mess, try to keep your long range goal in mind. You are about much more than just accomplishing today’s work: you are raising future men and women! (Tom's dad gets it, and in the end finds work more suited for a toddler, working together in the garden.)

Andrew apprentices in cookie making.
When considering work and children, Tim and I have found it helpful to think about three different stages. In the Middle Ages a young man who wanted to join a guild had to begin as an apprentice. Later he would progress to become a journeyman, and, if all went well, eventually he would be a master craftsman.

We’ve found this three tiered progression a useful idea to employ as our children learn how to work in and around our home. Here’s how we divide the stages of young workers:

- Apprentice (Ages 1-5)
- Journeyman (Ages 6-12)
- Master Craftsman (Ages 13+)

During the apprentice years there are three things to focus on:
1. Obedience

Chores give you one more sphere in which you can teach this all important character trait. We found it helpful to teach our children to obey QQCC: Quickly, Quietly, Cheerfully, and Completely. 

2. Basic Routine

Before adding in additional family chores, it's important to establish a daily routine of things like getting dressed and brushing teeth. Pictures speak more than a thousand words to a non-reader, so one way to do this is to make a picture chart. Here's one I used to teach a daily routine with toddlers and preschoolers:

I posted a copy of this on the fridge, but as my child learned it, we could tick off the fingers together to see if he had followed through on all his tasks. Thumb - Have you made your bed? First finger - I can see that you are dressed - good job! Middle finger -  Did you remember to put your PJs away? Oops - OK then run back to your room and do that. Ring finger - Have you brushed your teeth? Let's go do that together. The pinkie is for one simple daily job, maybe feeding the dog or emptying a small trash can.  

3. Confidence

You want to encourage your child's growing sense of independence and confidence by making it possible for him to be successful at his work. You can do this by letting him try different jobs, giving him appropriate tools, and re-thinking your home's organization.

What kind of work should apprentice stage children do? This will vary by age and ability. With your youngest ones, keep them alongside you. If you need to fold laundry, give him all the dishtowels and washcloths to fold. He can help you sort clothes into darks and lights, and fill the washer or dryer. Granddaughter Annie's job is putting the recycling in the box. Give him smaller tools such as a Swiffer with fewer segments screwed together. He'll love seeing the white cloth get dirty as proof that he's doing a good job. A hand-held vacuum is another child-friendly tool.   I'm not a big fan of toy tools, but did find a nice set of broom and dustpan at a Teacher's Store.

Besides child-friendly tools, think about child-friendly home organization. If you want your preschoolers to unload the dishwasher or set the table, you'll need to store your dishes somewhere he can reach without too much hassle. I've heard of some women who put their plates in a bottom cabinet so their young ones can access them. We switched to plastic plates and cups for everyday use to cut down on the stress that comes from breakage when young children are doing most of the dish handling. Do whatever makes it possible for your children to take responsibility and succeed. 

Yep, it's Andrew again. Bet you couldn't guess that he's my first-born.

Next up: The Journeyman Years (Ages 5/6 - 12)


Lisa said…
Great post Anne...I have two toddlers at the moment, Ages 2 and 1, (my older two are 7 & 5) 2yr. old daughter loves to help me with laundry....she actually motivates me to keep up with it! Your words were are so right that it is extremely valuable to invest the time into our little ones,no matter if it takes a chore longer to do...thank you for the reminder.

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